How to act like a local in Croatia: Part 1
In Croatia, everyone born and raised outside Croatia is considered a foreigner. A person’s behavior, dress, and speech can make you easily stand out as a person who is not from here.
This doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the Croatian community. Croatians are super welcoming and love to pull back the curtain on their culture, especially if you absorb it with enthusiasm.
Most Croatians consider it a huge compliment when people from abroad demonstrate a love of Croatia and their culture. Their eyes light up and they become inspired to share more with you.
It takes a lot of time to learn the ways of Croatia and its people. Some things are obvious, some less so.
To give you a head start, I’ll share a few key behaviors that will have you acting like a local immediately. Nobody will call you a tourist ever again.
In this post, we cover:
- Call the sea by its name
- Pronounce Zagreb correctly
- Don’t get sunburned
- Order coffee in Croatian
- Never split a bill
- Be able to handle a rakija
- Dress for the occasion
- Know the difference between jugo and bura
- Know the difference between Dinamo and Hajduk
- Regulate your voice
- Learn some local slang
- Get a dopunsko health insurance
- Know the Croatian greetings
- Know the difference between kako ste and kako si
- Go out of your way to help people
- Why change my behavior?
The facts are these…
15 ways to act like a local in Croatia
Croatians have a strong bond with the Adriatic. It gives life, it heals, it soothes, and makes us feel new again. The sea plays a significant role, especially for those on the coast.
If you want to be a local, then make sure you call it the “sea”, because that’s what it is. It’s not an ocean. There are only 5 oceans: Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Southern, and Artic. However, there are more than 50 seas, of which the Adriatic is one of them.
Also, never say you’re “going to the water”. Water could mean river, lake, pond, pool, ocean, babbling brook, or the stuff that comes out of the tap. The sea is the sea. Točka. If you call it anything else, it will be noticed.
Native English speakers especially have trouble with this one. Many first-timers pronounce the capital city in two distinct parts: “Za” with a whiny “a” like in “wax” followed by a big emphasis on “greb”.
In Croatian, the emphasis is on the “Za”, and the “a” is longer and sounds more like “aw”. It’s followed up with a short “greb” after.
Even if you don’t live in Zagreb, the capital city is the center of many things and will inevitably come into conversation during your time in Croatia. It’s one of the easier cities to learn, and your accurate pronunciation will show you know what you’re talking about.
Below is Marija pronouncing it properly.
Whether they drink coffee, walk, hike, swim in the sea or marinate at a toplice (spa), Croats don’t get sunburned. Tourists do. Your parched, red skin is a neon sign that screams, “I’m a foreigner.”
Why don’t Croatians get sunburned?
- They know the importance of shade. Whether that’s an umbrella, a hat, or the shadow of a tree, Croatians know that direct sun all day can be a killer.
- They avoid the beach during the hottest part of the day, between 13 and 15. It works out well because that is also their lunchtime.
- Their skin is kissed by the Mediterranean pigment, which gives them a higher sun tolerance than those of us from colder climates.
Speaking as someone with an Irish bloodline, the Croatian sun will destroy you. Don’t be stubborn. Wear sunscreen and sit in the shade. It’s not worth the pain, and you’ll certainly stand out as a non-local.
Coffee is a mandatory part of life in Croatia. Even if you don’t drink coffee, you must still be on board with “going on a coffee” with friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and anyone else who may cross your path – regardless of what you drink.
One of the first things you should learn after moving to Croatia is how to order your beverage of choice in Croatia. Most caffe bars these days have a dual-language menu, so you can easily figure out the Croatian equivalent, or ask for help. Any Croatian will be happy to help you with the pronunciation.
If you ask for a latte, it’ll be clear to everyone in earshot that you do not live here.
Croatians may have less buying power than other parts of the world, but they are incredibly generous.
When you go on a coffee, usually one person will pay for all of it. Then the next time, the other person pays. Or maybe they pay a few times, then you do. Or maybe you kick in 4 euro and they add 2 euro. Nema veze. It doesn’t matter. It all washes out in the end. It’s just the right thing to do.
Do not pick up a bill and start calculating what everybody owes. It’s crass. Croats do not like to talk about money and will do whatever they can to avoid it.
If you’re coming from a place that counts every cent, this may sound stressful, but in reality, it takes a huge load off. Try it the Croatian way. Not only will you build relationships with Croatians faster, but you’ll look like a local and it’ll likely reduce your stress in the process.
P.S. Croatians will host YOU on THEIR birthday. Not the other way around.
Rakija is Croatia’s liquor of choice. It can be delicate and sweet, or powerful and chest-warming.
Croatians drink it to celebrate, to prepare their stomach for eating, or soothe it after a meal. It’s also used to prevent illness or solve one.
It shouldn’t take long for a Croatian to present you with a rakija to drink. Unless you have some strict medical or sobriety-related reason, do not turn it down.
Sometimes you shoot it, sometimes you sip it. It should be obvious which to do by context.
Sharing rakija is a form of bonding. Just let it happen, otherwise, you’ll stay an outsider.
Croatians are sharp dressers. They choose their clothing according to a variety of rules, which vary throughout the country in terms of style, layers, and color palette.
Pay attention to how the Croats around you are dressing and follow their lead.
Here are a few rules to avoid awkwardness:
- Only wear beach attire at the beach
- Dress nicely in restaurants, government offices, and banks (especially if you are doing more than a transaction); yoga pants, sweatpants, tank tops, and shorts should be avoided
- Between October 1 and April 30
- do not expose your toes
- wear undershirts to “cover your kidneys”
- always bring a jacket, regardless of whether you need it
If a Croat thinks you’re underdressed, it may make them uncomfortable and become a distraction. Dressing contrary to the local rules will not only out you as a foreigner but may lead to stares and possible commentary.
You may be thinking, “I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” Sure, that’s a healthy way to function, but trust me. There are a lot of opinions here, and Croatians are not afraid to share them. Sometimes, it’s just not worth it.
If you’re meeting a Croatian for coffee and they ask if you’re cold before they say “hello”, I hope you’ll think of me. 🙂
The wind is a substantial part of Croatian culture, especially on the coast. There are 8 different winds, but the most important are jugo (the bad wind) and bura (the good wind).
Jugo is a warm southeast wind that typically brings rain, misery and abrupt pressure changes. Plans are cancelled. Relationships are ruined. Heads pound. Whether you are affected or not, it’s important to have compassion. Jugo is not just a wind, it’s a mental health condition.
Bura is a strong, cold northeast wind that will freeze you to the bone on a sunny day. It is a cleansing wind that blows away the haze, but also has the power to shut down bridges and ferries. This wind is key in the production of Dalmatian pršut and Pag cheese.
Understanding these two winds and how they affect the locals is vital to being a part of the community. Croats on the coast discuss the wind A LOT.
The cities of Zagreb and Split have several football clubs between them, but only two of them matter – Dinamo in Zagreb and Hajduk in Split.
To say they are rivals would be an understatement. Their competition is about more than football. It’s also about north versus south, Dalmatia against the centralized capital, and long-held cultural differences and prejudices.
Matches between these two teams even have their own moniker – Vječni derb, which means Eternal derby.
Even after 11 years here, it’s hard to understand and appreciate the depth of this rivalry. I don’t know if I ever will. At the bare minimum, I do know which teams are which and their associated fan clubs. Confusing the two would be a showstopper.
Here’s your cheat sheet:
- Hajduk – football club (started 1911)
- Torcida – official fan club (started 1950)
- Dinamo – football club (started 1945)
- Bad Blue Boys – official fan club (started 1986)
There is a stereotype that Croatians are loud. I disagree with this. They are loud when loud makes sense, like at parties or football matches or when they run into people on the street or are upset or excited.
Aside from that, they are observers of the social contract. At a caffe or restaurant, they talk only loud enough for their companions to hear. If they live in an apartment, they respect their neighbors and speak only at the necessary volume most of the time.
If someone at the next table or in the apartment above can hear you, you’re speaking too loudly.
Americans especially, but also Brits and Australians all tend to speak with a booming intensity. We do not know the volume of our own voice. It’s not a criticism, it’s a cultural difference.
Next time you’re in public, observe everyone else and try to mimic their tenor. If other tables can hear you, then they can’t focus on their own conversations. It’s a glaring, and sometimes, cringeworthy sign that you’re not from here.
Croatia has a thousand dialects. There are 3 main ones (Štokavian, Kajkavian, and Čakavian), but there are endless local dialects specific to counties, cities, islands, and even neighborhoods.
The island of Vis has a population of less than 4.000 people and only two towns. Each one of them has its own dialect.
To be truly seen as a local, throw in some keywords from the nearest dialect into your speech. You don’t need to be fluent or even remotely conversational to benefit from this knowledge.
Here are a few examples:
- Dubrovnik – “kenova”, which means “what’s up?”
- Istria – “Ni sila!”, which means “no rush/hurry!”
- Osijek – “lega” which can mean “bro”, “bud”, or “pal”
- Rijeka – “Šta da?”, which means “really?”
- Split-Dalmatia – “ae”, which is more like a noise than a word and has an endless number of meanings. It can be an agreement, an affirmation, an admission, a greeting, or even the answer to “kako si?”. Pronounce it in two syllables without a break in between – “ah” plus “ay”. They should blend together, like a change in octave.
- Vinkovci – “De dobro je”, which means “no way”
- Zagreb – Use “kaj” for “what”, instead of “što”
If you’ve been living in Croatia for more than 1 year, then you probably have the basic state health insurance, called obvezno. Once you have the basic insurance, you can get a supplement, called dopunsko.
It’s an optional insurance that eliminates your co-pays for doctors, diagnostics, and most medicines. It also gives you broader access to medicines and means you won’t pay anything if you must stay overnight in the hospital.
Dopunsko may not be required by the state, but health care professionals will judge you if you don’t have it. You may again be thinking, “I don’t care what other people think.” Again, trust me on this, it’s really not worth the argument or the eye rolls.
It only costs 5 to 10 euros per month, and it’s full of benefits. Having it makes it look like you are “in the know”, and not having it will be seen as foolish.
View our health insurance guides:
- What is “dopunsko” and why you should have this health insurance
- Croatia’s state health care obvezno insurance, what it costs, and what is included
- How third-country citizens can sign up for state health insurance in Croatia
- How EU/EEA citizens (and Croats) can sign up for Croatian state health insurance
- What is Croatian dodatno health insurance
Not all Croatians speak English. If you live in the city center, no matter the city, you’ve probably been given the false impression that they do. Please don’t be the person who uses this as an excuse not to learn Croatian.
While you don’t have to be fluent, you should learn as much as possible within your capabilities. The first place to start is with greetings, please, and thank you. These are so easy and represent the lowest bar possible, so you will be automatically labeled as a foreigner if you choose to use English instead – or skip them entirely.
Learn these right now:
- Bok or Bog (Dalmatian) = Hello and goodbye (informal)
- Dobro jutro = Good morning
- Dobar dan = Good day
- Dobra večer = Good evening
- Doviđenja = Goodbye (Formal)
- Hvala = Thank you
- Molim = Please
Below is a quick video of our own Marija speaking these words.
In addition to knowing your coffee order and how to say “hello” and “goodbye”, you should also learn how to ask how someone is doing.
There are MANY ways to ask – some formal, some slang, some dialect. The most important ones to imprint are “Kako ste?” and “Kako si?”, which literally mean “How are you?”.
However, there is an important difference between the two. “Kako ste” is formal, and “kako si” is informal. What does this mean in practice?
“Kako ste?” should only be used with strangers, people older than you, and those in a position of respect or power. Use it with someone at MUP or someone you meet for the first time.
“Kako si?” is for people you know and those younger than you. Use it with a child or a friend when you go on a coffee.
Croats are naturally helpful. It’s a part of their DNA. It’s a reflex to give assistance when needed.
If a Croat sees that someone needs help, they will not hesitate. They’ll drop everything and help in any way they can.
Depending on where you come from, it can seem overboard, even suspicious. It doesn’t take long to see that they are being completely genuine. They don’t know any other way to be.
They are never inconvenienced or put out. Their time is never wasted if they are helping another person.
To be a part of the Croatian community, you must give at the same level. Treat everyone like a friend you haven’t met yet. Don’t be cheap with your money or time. It’ll make you stand out, and not in a good way.
Here’s an example. Croatians commonly leave bread out in public places for those who need it. See a photo from my neighborhood below.
It was Croatian kindness and generosity that pulled me in and made me realize that this is the country where I want to live the rest of my life – and it’s made me a better person in the process.
Pay it forward and treat everybody the way you would like to be treated.
Croatia is special because of its people, and Croats have a very specific culture. You don’t need to copy every single thing they do, but there are some characteristics that you should consider absorbing.
Doing so shows your respect for their culture and will inspire them to bring you into the community – that’s when you’ll really see the magic of Croatia. It may also make you a better person. WIN WIN.
You may not be Croatian-born and raised, but if you play your cards right, you can transition from tourist to local. I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely not a tourist.
View our other Croatian culture posts
- 10 brilliant things you can say to make a Croatian smile
- How to understand Croatian culture: Part 1
- How to understand Croatian culture: Part 2
- 7 Croatian card games you can play right now
- All you need is “pauza”, your break from it all
- Christmas cakes traditionally prepared for winter holidays in Croatia
- Croatia’s greatest and most tragic love stories
- Enrich your life in Croatia: Get to know Croatians
- Everyday Croatian-made products that you can buy to support Croatia
- How to attend a Croatian wedding
- How to give a gift to a Croatian in different occasions
Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.